You can’t swat away a bug when you’re dead—a simple, if macabre, fact that makes Gail Anderson's trailblazing research into the field of forensic entomology possible.
It was the late 1980s and Gail Anderson was close to finishing her PhD in pest management at SFU. But she was frustrated that her recent discovery of a cure for a minor yet common horse disease hadn’t gained any commercial interest. Around the same time, her biological sciences professor Dr. John Borden suggested Anderson’s expertise with insects to police who were working on a local homicide case. She was struck by the immediate usefulness of forensic entomology–research done in the lab one day could be used in court just weeks later as hard evidence. And so, she took a sideways step along the entomology career spectrum.
“I had always wanted to do something useful with my knowledge of insects,” says the British-born professor. “And then John presented me with this opportunity and I thought: what could be more useful than helping police solve crimes and catch bad guys?” Soon enough she went on to become the first full-time forensic entomologist in Canada.
In the 1990s, Anderson began conducted studies using pig carcasses—they make for decent stand-ins for humans—in order to study the predictable manner in which insects colonize dead bodies. Her team has left carcasses on land, buried them underground, and submerged them in lakes and oceans to see how insects react to the dead flesh. This work has greatly contributed to the baseline of data used worldwide by police and forensic teams.
It has also helped convince law enforcement agencies, coroners, and other scientists, that forensic entomology methods can produce crucial evidence. Just a few decades ago, the bugs that were on bodies at a crime scene were swept aside as nuisances, but now Anderson’s job includes training police officers to collect the flies, maggots, beetles and other signs of insect life on dead bodies so they can be taken to the lab for analysis.
The insects can reveal a lot. “My research establishes the approximate time of death,” she says. “It can also help investigators determine whether the body has been moved, disturbed or wounded—all information that can lead to outcomes such as identification, exoneration and conviction.”
Despite the clearly distasteful and disturbing elements of her job, Anderson pushes past her squeamishness by putting on her rational scientist’s hat. “I don’t like watching blood and guts on TV but when I am at a crime scene I know my work is potentially going to be very important, so I very quickly look at the insects and the evidence and get to work.”
She also never forgets that she can help deliver a sense of closure to a victim’s family and friends, and even to society at large. “When I’m called upon to work on investigation it usually means that someone has died before their time,” she says. “If my analysis provides evidence leading to prosecution then at least the person responsible can be stopped from killing again. Also, homicides have a major impact on the public psyche and so this work can help alleviate that by speeding up and solving an investigation.”
Fernandez, Sandy M. "Dead Men Tell No Tales--But Bugs Do." Time 157.11 (2001): 58. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.
Jones, Nicola. "Opinioninterview." New Scientist 173.2325 (2002): 38. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.
Dr. Gail Anderson is a professor of forensic entomology and co-director of the Centre for Forensic Research at Simon Fraser University. She is a past president of the North American Forensic Entomology Association, the Canadian Society of Forensic Sciences, and the BC Entomological Society, as well as past chair of the American Board of Forensic Entomology. She is also a Fellow of both the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and the Canadian Society of Forensic Sciences. In 1999, she established the Forensic Entomology Laboratories at SFU, the first lab built in North America to specifically research how insect biology can aid in criminal investigations. In 2001, Time magazine listed her as one of the top five global innovators in the Criminal Justice Field. She is the only woman ever to receive the Derome Award (2001), the Canadian Society of Forensic Science’s most prestigious honour.
Q & A with Gail Anderson
What motivates you as a researcher?
Research conducted in the laboratory or the field can be directly and immediately applied into a homicide investigation. The foundations of my research are grounded in basic science, but the results have far reaching impacts in death investigations. Much of my research is based on questions developed from casework so it’s directly applicable to a crime scene.
How does your research make an impact in our lives?
My research has a very direct impact on homicide investigations and trials as well as in animal abuse cases and wildlife crime.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
Collaboration is vital in my work: not just traditional collaboration with other academic scholars but with death investigation practitioners such as police, coroners and forensic laboratory scientists. Collaboration allows the real world of death investigation to integrate with the academic world and the research we conduct.
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
SFU embraced and supported my work long before “forensic entomology” or “CSI” became household words. When I began, forensic entomology was a fledgling science and SFU was the only institution that recognized the immediate value of doing research and casework with such a strong applied purpose–my work is all about the community and the criminal justice system.
As well as doing actual casework for police and coroners and testifying in court, I am a member of Scientists and Innovators in the Schools and am listed in the University’s list of ‘experts’ so I’m regularly asked to give talks to everyone from schools to seniors groups and everyone in between. The public needs to be engaged in the university so they can understand what we do and how it impacts them and their community.